AMAMI OSHIMA, Japan — Kazuhiko Kanai uses the traditional method to dye the elegant kimonos for which this small, semitropical island is renowned: he carries a bundle of pure white silk to a nearby rice paddy and hurls it into the mud.
Mr. Kanai is one of the last practitioners of a method known as “dorozome,” or “mud-dyeing,” which uses the island’s iron-rich soil to turn silk the color of the darkest chocolate. This is just one step in an elaborate production process that can take a year to produce a kimono with the glossiest silk and most intricately woven designs in all Japan. In a nation that esteems its traditional form of dress as high art, Amami Oshima’s kimonos became some of the most prized of them all, once capable of fetching more than $10,000 apiece.
But those heady days are over, as a shift to Western fashions and Japan’s long economic squeeze have led to plummeting demand, especially for high-end kimonos.
Mud-dyeing started when disobedient islanders buried kimonos in the ground to hide them, only to discover on digging them up again that the fabrics had turned a beautiful dark color, said Mr. Kanai, who owns the mud-dyeing workshop.
His son, Yukihito, now uses those same centuries-old dyeing techniques to color new types of items, including T-shirts, jeans and even guitar bodies. He is experimenting with selling these over the Internet, to avoid the onerous distribution system.
“We need to become more like artisans in Europe or artists in New York,” said the younger Mr. Kanai, 35, who said he is one of the few “young successors” in the island’s kimono industry. “Even traditions have to evolve.”